Is Italian cuisine the ultimate comfort food? Chef Julian Barsotti makes a strong case with his third restaurant, Sprezza, the Roman-inspired spot that opened in late spring in the burgeoning Maple Avenue Dining District.
The inspiration for Sprezza is Roman cuisine as presented in the cafes, trattorias and pizzerias of modern-day Rome. The name is derived from sprezzatura, a term coined during the Renaissance for the gentlemanly air of nonchalance that makes a true artist’s work seem effortless. Loose translation: Talent and class make the difficult look easy, an especially appropriate observation in the hospitality field.
Set just across the street from the Old Parkland Hospital campus, the restaurant is in a freestanding Craftsman-style building. Inside, the space has the look of a modern Scandinavian farmhouse—airy and light-filled with white walls, taupe upholstered fabrics and blond woods. A huge, open kitchen crowned with buffed steel and brass venting dominates the room. Casually dressed clientele of all ages populate seating at a chef’s counter fronting the kitchen, and tall community tables, bar seating and booths line the walls of the room. With indie rock music playing in the background, chefs moving quickly at their stations in the open kitchen and servers smiling broadly conveying positive energy, this place feels good.
The beverage menu is an all-out Italian celebration: More than 50 Italian wines (including several by-the-glass options and a large range of bottles affordably priced under $60) along with a selection of Italian craft beers and shim-style cocktails (Italian libations that are heavier on flavors from bitters and liqueurs and lighter on base spirits). From the list, we elect to sample two. The Negroni Bianco ($12) is a nice bite of tequila tempered with vermouth and Suze and Strega liqueurs. The Di Rosmarino ($12) is a froth-topped gin drink humming with house-infused fresh rosemary and Pernod licorice flavors, with drops of angostura bitters garnishing the snowy top.
Sprezza’s menu starts with spuntini, Italian for snack food; then antipasti, the equivalent of appetizers; pizza al taglio, pizza; pasta tradizione, traditional pastas; stagioni, seasonal pasta dishes; del giorno, entree specials of the day; and dolci, desserts.
From the short list of spuntini ($12 each), which includes yogurt-dressed cucumber, tomato-topped crostini and stuffed olives, we choose a standout: spaghetti suppli al telefono, golf ball-sized balls of tomato-and-cheese-dressed spaghetti noodles combined with mozzarella, rolled in panko and fried, then plated riding citrusy pesto sauce and topped with grated Parmesan cheese. The moniker, well known in Italy, refers to the telephone-wirelike strings of melted cheese evident when a fork breaks open a delectable sphere. The crunchy balls with creamy, flavorful centers are definite candidates for bar bites of the year. We’re hooked.
From the list of antipasti ($15 each), we sample the beet salad—a good-sized bowl of citrus-dressed pale pink beets atop nutty farro grain with crunchy sauteed cubes of pancetta, sliced radishes and olives, and garnished with petite halves of hard-boiled quail eggs. To accompany, we order bruschetta classico ($3), the house bread—grilled sourdough slices accented with garlic and accompanied by rosemary butter. Vibrant flavor, texture and umami goodness, and one serving was plenty for two. What’s not to love? No regrets!